Posts tagged #Diversity

Thoughts on Diversity in Broadway Musical Storytelling

Travelers on diverted planes in the wake of 9/11 find themselves in and around the town of Gander, Newfoundland.

In an attempt to fit in, a high schooler tells a lie that gets completely out of control.

A zoom lens is taken to a section of Tolstoy's War and Peace as we follow the romantic story of two outsiders who find each other.

A weatherman is forced to relive the same day over and over again.

These are very roughly (very, very roughly, since I haven't seen any of them!) the plots of the four Best Musical Tony 2017 nominees, which are also the four nominated for Best Original Score and Best Book: Come From AwayDear Evan HansenNatasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812; and Groundhog Day. I love how different these stories are from each other. It's evidence that musical theatre as an art form has really branched out beyond any particular template of storytelling. And it has been like this for a few years now. Book of Mormon, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, Grey Gardens, Fun Home, Hamilton, Waitress - the subject matter of contemporary musicals is so varied from show to show — even on Broadway, which can often be seen as a purely commercial venture with great potential to fall victim to cookie-cutter producing. This trend is heartening to me, because it shows that commercialism need not win over storytelling. Or even, that good and diverse storytelling can lead to commercial success on Broadway. Something that doesn't seem to ring true for Hollywood blockbusters.

Yet, amidst this diversity of stories is something worth noting: All of the musical theatre writing teams (and even the directors) of the four musicals listed above are white. Of course, I acknowledge that "white" is a largely diverse group in and of itself. The writers come from different countries, and undoubtedly bring different perspectives to musical theatre. But if you look over the Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Lyrics Tony nominees over the past twenty years, you'll see that writing acclaimed musical theatre is a very white thing to do (and more often than not, white male). Writers like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Stew are the exceptions, not the norm. And as an Asian American, it's not particularly encouraging that the few times that Asian Americans are heavily featured during the Tony Awards ceremony is due to revivals of South Pacific, The King and I and, this year, Miss Saigon - all stories written by white men. (For the record, I view those shows as simultaneously beneficial for Asian American actors in the industry AND problematic for the perception of Asian Americans in musical theatre as a whole.)

I don't write this to place blame. Or to inflict guilt. The point is observation. All but two of the actors and actresses nominated for performances in a musical this year are white. Who gets to write the stories affects who is represented on the Broadway stage. Who gets to write the stories influences the kinds of stories that get told. I don't necessarily have any magical solutions to this problem, other than to buckle down and write, compose, get better at my craft, learn from other musicals, collaborate with amazing people, and keep advocating for diversity in storytellers as much as diversity in storytelling. Maybe I'll make it to Broadway, maybe I won't. But I hope that no matter where my work gets performed, I'm tilting that dial of representation to better reflect the actual diversity in the US.

The TYA Multicultural Connection to Children’s Books

I was recently invited to write a blog post for the Theatre for Young Audiences Blog. Here is the text of the blog:

The TYA Multicultural Connection to Children's Books

As a writer of musicals, I am often drawn to books or written stories for inspiration. My first show Tales of Olympus was based on Greek mythology, my second show The Song of the Nightingale used a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale as its source material, and my last show was a musical adaptation of Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. My next two projects also pull their inspiration from books. Books are the most appealing source material for me because, unlike visual media such as film, there isn’t already an idea of what the universe of the story should look like. Even though vivid illustrations might accompany certain written stories, for me they serve primarily as a starting point for what a theatrical adaptation of that work could look like.

Looking at the season line-ups of many non-profit TYA companies in America, it is clear that books and written stories are the source of most of the work that we produce. This makes sense because our audiences often want to see something that is familiar, even beloved, on our stages. And yet, oddly enough, this is part of the problem we face as theatres trying to embrace multiculturalism. Earlier this year, I heard a KQED Forum discussion on the topic of diversity in children’s books. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center reported that of the 3200 children’s books that were published in 2013, only 6% featured a character of color. Read that again: 6%. This does not reflect the diversity of America. This means that books from which TYA companies want to create new works skew towards the ethnic majority in our culture. If only 6% of children’s books feature characters of color, then that percentage will most likely be transferred to our stages.

This troubles me for two reasons. One: It limits the level of empathy that we can introduce to children. Two: It keeps children who don’t identify as belonging to the majority in the realm of the “other.”

On the first point, theatre companies of all stripes tout empathy as one of the most important experiences we offer our audiences. I would argue, though, that this is only as true as the diversity of stories we choose to tell. If the stories we tell in our theatres are “about-the-majorities-for-the-majorities,” we are missing opportunities for children to relate to cultures other than their own. The depth of empathy we encourage them to experience will be limited to the culture they already know. If, however, we give them an opportunity to relate to characters from different cultures, it can help broaden their knowledge of the human experience. This not only teaches them the richness of cultures that exist outside their own, but that the people within those cultures experience hopes, obstacles and emotions just like any other human being.

On the second point, if our stories remain in the realms of the majorities, those who do not self-identify as part of those majorities are unintentionally sent the message that they are an outlier, an “other.” They merely get to observe the stories of the “main culture” on our stages, but are not encouraged to think of themselves as the leads in our stories. Personal example: As an Asian American, I have grappled with feeling like a career in musical theatre was not an option for me. There were (and still are) very few examples of musicals about or starring Asian American men, and musical theatre’s pantheon of writers remains overwhelmingly white. Thankfully, I have forged a career for myself despite this dearth of predecessors. But I know first-hand how a lack of seeing myself on-stage led to a profound internal struggle about what I “was allowed” to aim for and accomplish.

One thing we do to address this is to practice open casting, where characters who are white in book-form are played on-stage by actors of a different ethnicity. While I think this is a great way of getting multicultural representation in our casts, it does not get at the question of “Whose stories are we telling?” In light of this question, the idea of open casting merely becomes a short-term solution to an on-going problem.

In order to see multiculturalism more accurately reflected on our TYA stages, we need to start by supporting multicultural story-generators, namely, writers. Again, TYA organizations have already begun doing this by commissioning new works written by playwrights and composers from a variety of backgrounds (myself included). But I think we can go even one step further. TYA organizations should be actively supporting multicultural children’s book authors, since they often provide the source materials for TYA writers to adapt.

There are at least two ways TYA producers can do this.

  1. Support the development and promotion of diverse children’s book authors. The good news is that there is already a movement within the children’s book community toward promoting multiculturalism (check out the We Need Diverse Books campaign). We could partner with such movements knowing that supporting them will directly affect the stories that will come to our stages.
  2. Focus in on that 6% of stories that actually featured a character of color. Get to know these authors who are already creating multicultural stories. Find which of their stories excite us, and adapt them into new TYA works. Express to their publishers and/or agents that we are interested in seeing the future work of these authors.

I know the problem of bringing more multicultural stories to our stages can seem insurmountable. But I don’t think it’s about solving the problem in one fell swoop. It’s finding what small steps we can take to eventually find traction toward solving the problem in the long-term. And a very tangible step we can all take is supporting the creation of multicultural children’s books, the birthplace of so many of our amazing works.